NIAMEY, Niger -- Frances Defense Ministry said Monday that French troops had arrived on the outskirts of Malis historic Timbuktu, but their rapid advance appeared to have been too late for some of the citys storied treasures.
As they retreated ahead of French helicopters and paratroopers, militants belonging to al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb torched the library holding the citys ancient manuscripts, according to a local journalist who braved the Islamist occupation for nine months but finally decided to flee.
It was a final act of desecration in what many fear will be a string of irreparable destruction meted out by Islamists during the nine months they controlled the city, a desert crossroads that was a center for Islamic scholarship and for centuries connected sub-Saharan Africa to the Mediterranean and the rest of the Eurasia. It captured Europes imagination as a far-off mysterious place, earning it U.N. recognition as a world heritage site.
News that the Islamists had destroyed the protected shrines of revered Muslim saints leaked out months ago. But with French troops poised to sweep into the city, the Islamists apparently were furious as they contemplated retreat.
Beginning Thursday, the Islamists unleashed a spree of targeted destruction. They destroyed government offices, laid waste to the local mobile phone networks, vandalized private residences, and destroyed the ferry the citys residents had used to cross the Niger River.
But the most depressing report for a host of world scholars will be that the Islamists torched the towns ancient Islamic manuscripts stored at the Ahmed Baba Institute for Documentation and Research, established in 1973 and home to 30,000 scrolls. The manuscripts were brought from as far as the borders of Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Niger, Algeria and the Ivory Coast, said the institutes website.
The journalist asked to be identified only by his initials, B.M., out of fear of retribution. He managed to escape Timbuktu on Saturday by pretending to be heading toward a nearby village, and then he disappeared and finally caught a bus south. He first gave his account on Monday morning. He was reached again by phone on Monday evening and said he was still making his way to Bamako, Malis capital.
The mayor of Timbuktu, Ousmane Halle, who is currently in Bamako, confirmed the journalists account over the phone. That is the same information I have been receiving, he said.
"The situation is very alarming, thats why Im staying here until the situation stabilizes," said the mayor, who has not been able to reach his family by phone after the Islamists destroyed the cellular networks microwave towers.
The French have advanced on two main fronts, the first east of the Niger River, which cuts through Mali and flows north into the Sahara Desert, and the second to the rivers west. The river whisks past Timbuktu and turns back south toward Gao, northern Malis largest town.
The eastern advance first captured Gao. The French now say the western offensive has pushed all the way to Timbuktu, securing the swath of land between the two cities. According to a statement posted on the French Defense Ministrys website, French forces have secured the airport at Timbuktu and the entrances to the town.
The French already are starting to receive African backup forces that France hopes will soon allow its troops to return home. Troops from neighboring Niger as well as nearby French ally Chad already are holding defensive positions in Mali.
Niger says it is contributing 650 troops, and Chad has promised to send 2,000.
The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, a secular rebel group composed of ethnic Tuareg tribesmen whose original rebellion last year against Malis government led to the Islamist takeover of northern Mali, claimed in a statement on its website that it had captured Kidal, the third Islamist stronghold in northern Mali.
Until the French finally enter Timbuktu, the full extent of damage done by the Islamists to Timbuktus historical possessions will remain hazy.
The Islamists could have destroyed centuries of work, painstakingly collected over the course of recent decades, in particular by one man, Abdul Kader, who headed the institute from 1984 until 2002. In the 1980s, Kader bought the manuscripts from residents for as much as $300 a manuscript. When he expanded the search outside Timbuktu, Kader sometimes had to compensate villagers with livestock instead of cash. Some single villages held as many as 2,000 of the ancient documents, according to the institutes website.
A portion of the institutes scrolls have been digitized, but most were not. A new Ahmed Baba Institute was opened in 2009 to include facilities for researchers.
By then, a wave of kidnappings by al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb had begun. AQIM collected hefty ransoms for its Western hostages, and foreign traffic to Timbuktu slowed to a trickle.
McClatchy special correspondent Brahima Ouologuem contributed from Bamako, Mali.
Video: French Troops in Mali Take Timbuktu Airport